Constructive criticism for partner's creative pursuit?
June 9, 2010 12:38 AM   Subscribe

My partner has a hobby/interest that is important to him--similar to music or art, it's something that he occasionally shares the labors of his love with the public. The problem? I'm not crazy about these particular creative fruits. Am I just being too snobby?

We have been together over a year, both of us are 30ish. This came up as an issue several months ago and I'm still confused how to deal with it. We both have several different creative pursuits, and most of his other creative endeavors I have a lot of admiration for. I like one of his pieces more than some others, and there are plenty of examples of this type of creative pursuit that I do enjoy. Let's say it was jazz compositions--the problem wouldn't be that I don't like jazz comps, I could list several jazz composers whose work I admire, I just don't seem to like his jazz comps, among others I don't like. The town we live in supposedly has a good community for this type of creative expression, but when I've gone with groups of his friends to these events, they've disliked the same sorts of things I have. They haven't directly criticized his pieces, but they have criticized elements that I see in his work--it seems possible to me that they are most likely indifferent to his work and were just there to be good friends. I also have an academic background that involves critical theory, and so that might be throwing a wrench into things too. With my main creative pursuit, I was routinely run through a gauntlet of unbridled criticism in school--and loved every minute of it. When it comes to other routes of expression that I am less confident in, I tend not to share many of the results, and only in ways that let my friends know that I am sharing a very rough beginning, and that I'm only ready for however much criticism. When this issue got very painful between my boyfriend and I, it wasn't the first time he had asked my opinion. I had tried to remain sort of non-committal, only talking about the things that I did like--but he began pressing the issue more directly and it felt like it was pushing me to be either honest and somewhat insensitive, or dishonest and effusive. This is, of course, my perception of things--and even within my perception of him, not indicative of who I think he is. he is extremely talented in many other ways, an amazing partner who really contributes to our shared responsibilities, smart, fit, true north on a moral compass, the whole nine yards. We are also normally able to talk through our problems very well. I certainly didn't like hurting his feelings, but the resulting fight still leaves a funny taste...not just that I didn't think I did anything wrong, but even after months, I still feel very confused as to how to handle this issue. I haven't learned anything! I don't want to continue to hurt him, or hurt him again, it's a touchy subject.
He has said things like, "well I just won't invite you to my next performance" but that doesn't sit right with me either. I want to encourage him to be happy in all his pursuits, so maybe I've already screwed the pooch here--before he pressed me for more of my opinion, I WAS just happy that it made him happy. There might be some more backstory necessary, but I'll stop here for now to see what kind of a read you all have so far.
posted by leemleem to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there nothing in this particular creative pursuit that you find attractive/positive? I would focus on that. He's probably not looking for the critical reviews from you.

(That was one long paragraph...also I am very curious what this creative pursuit is. Unicorn cosplay? Phallic sculpturing? Mustache-men-only mud ballet? Perhaps he's already insecure about it and is more vulnerable to critics?)
posted by jstarlee at 12:50 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: yeah, sorry about the giant text block.

the pursuit in question is storytelling. the groups here all do that flowy, hippie-dippie theatre-major type of delivery, which bothers me more than the actual stories--like it seems like they should be performing these stories for little kids. I was actually trying to be diplomatic and positive by saying something like "oh, i bet kids would really like that". He made a big deal about how it was def. not for kids.
posted by leemleem at 12:57 AM on June 9, 2010

Best answer: I am reminded of this, in case you didn't see it.
posted by mykescipark at 1:05 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

What's wrong with saying "I'm sorry, this is just not my taste. But I still want to be supportive to you, I'm just maybe the wrong person to critique it. Can I still come to your performances / what can I do to help?"
posted by Omnomnom at 1:12 AM on June 9, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, mykescipark! I knew it had to have been broached before but my keywords were failing me. Sorry for the almost identical question.

Oh, and jstarlee, speaking of unicorn cosplay...(slightly NSFW, poopoo jokes, general awesome terribleness)
posted by leemleem at 1:13 AM on June 9, 2010

Assuming that you want to go to his performances, How about "the thing I like best about your storytelling is the performer. When you asked me last month about my opinion, I tried to imagine what my opinion might be if someone else was performing and I am afraid that I hurt your feelings. The truth is that I like coming to your performances because I get a kick out of seeing you on stage, happy, doing your thing. Please keep inviting me because I enjoy watching you."
posted by metahawk at 1:14 AM on June 9, 2010

I had tried to remain sort of non-committal, only talking about the things that I did like--but he began pressing the issue more directly and it felt like it was pushing me to be either honest and somewhat insensitive, or dishonest and effusive.

What is wrong with being upbeat and cheerful? Praising the energy he brings to the "performance" (I don't understand why you are being so vague about what his hobby is) and positive. You could think of any number of sincere things to say, "I loved that melody" "That all came together there at the end, had you planned it?" or "How did you decide to do that one."

Really, coming up with something to say does not seem to be the issue rather it is your resistance to offering these encouraging types of statements b/c somehow you are caught up with having an "academic background in critical theory".
posted by mlis at 1:19 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like it's not just your boyfriend's storytelling, it's the storytelling of the community where you live that rubs you the wrong way. Which is perfectly fine. You could say something like: 'I really admire and enjoy a lot of your work. I'm not so keen on storytelling as a form of expression [or I really struggle with fully appreciating this particular storytelling style]. I know I'm not the best person to give you advice and critique your work. I'd really like it if you would let me just play the admiring girlfriend.'

I'm guessing some of your distaste for the genre leaks through, even when you're trying to be positive, and he's picking up on that. For both your sakes, I would suggest that you both accept that you will have different interests and sometimes your significant other should support without judging/ offering advice. If he asks for your opinion, I would offer a few things that you geniunely liked and leave it at that.
posted by brambory at 1:33 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are some things that are more fun for the performers than for the audience. If an audience member has engaged in the same art form, then he might well have a fuller appreciation of the effort and "art" involved -- he can imagine himself as the performer, and understand, almost feel for himself, the art involved. However, someone who hasn't done that art form will not get it.

Also, it may be that the storytelling conventions he's using would be really impressive to a 1930s audience -- the form has been around forever, hasn't it -- but audiences are now used to a different, maybe more personal, type of performance. We are super-sensitive to things that seem "fake", but "fake" is another word for what used to be considered "theatrical" or, as some theater directors would say, "big". It used to be possible to just sit back and get lost in a big spectacle, but now people want to see their performers being more genuine and relating to them less as leader to followers and more as equals.

I've seen the type of storytelling you describe (my fiancé's mother does some), and this is my impression of the difference between what I like and what storytellers' ideal audiences would like.
posted by amtho at 4:03 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I sense there is more to this than just the storytelling.

In reality this is a non-issue that's been made into an issue, and it sounds like it's your responsibility that happened.

I love to walk in the park, at dawn, with my dawg... wife loves to sleep in on the weekends. I get up 6 hours before she does...

I like to do something she doesn't care about... this is not an issue, there should never be an argument about this. She doesn't spend ANY time telling me why walking the dawg at dawn is not fun, not her thing, not her interest...she just sleeps in... I walk the dawg.. we're all happy.

So, the answer to your question on the front page is: Yes.
posted by HuronBob at 5:10 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am not actually sure this is going to work out. If you are someone whose opinion matters to her, and he is someone who wants your opinion to be positive, and this is something close to his heart, this may only become a more gaping flaw in your relationship.

The big problem is that he is a creator who won't listen to criticism. I'm a screenwriter, and good screenwriters seek out criticism ... and then bust their asses to get better in the aspects that have been criticized. I am not looking for my wife to tell me my stuff is good. I'm looking for my wife to tell me how to make my stuff better.

The other big problem is that your opinion matters to you. There's nothing you can do about that. That's how you are. I can't tell people their stuff is good when it's not. I can find something nice to say, but if pressed, I have to be honest. Writing is too important to me, I won't lie about it. If I were with someone who was a terrible writer, who insisted on hearing that she was good, it would never work out.

If the storytelling is a hobby, then it doesn't really have to be good. I'm not a good guitar player. But I don't ask my wife to tell me I'm a good guitar player.

I disagree with everyone who's saying "find a way to be positive." Relationships can only have a solid foundation on honesty. I say, "Sit down and have a serious chat." Say, "Look, I love you, but I don't like your stuff. If you want to know why, I'll tell you. But don't ask me to say good things I don't believe."

This may be a dealbreaker for him, but better to know now than later.
posted by musofire at 5:14 AM on June 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

contra Huron Bob, if he is PUSHING her for an opinion, and refusing to accept her non-committal responses, that's on him. My husband occasionally does this, and it drives me CRAZY. He'll get really excited about something that he thinks is awesome (a particular painting in a gallery, let us say), and I'll say something like, "Oh, I can see why you like it." and "The artist did some very interesting things with colors." or some keep-the-peace crap like that. He'll repeatedly push and demand to know my opinion, and when I tell him that it's very nice but it isn't to my taste, he starts to tell me why I'm wrong and it's AWESOME! And once we're at this part of the conversation, it can't go anywhere good.

We routinely find ourselves back at the point where I explain to him, once again, that matters of taste are subjective and it is not a comment on HIS taste that I don't SHARE his taste in all particulars and, hey, I don't try to inflict Jackson Pollock on you so can you let the creepy depressing ultrarealistic sad people GO please? He really has a hard time with the idea that something he adores would not be to my taste.

I don't have a good answer for you, because I just thank my lucky stars my husband's creative pursuits ARE to my taste, or I think we'd be having your same problem. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:56 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

When someone is an artist for their own personal fulfillment, it really isn't necessary that they be able to "take" criticism. They are doing it for fun. Criticism isn't fun.

What kinds of stories?
posted by gjc at 6:36 AM on June 9, 2010

He's asking the equivalent of "Do I look fat it in this?" and I think you should just lie and say it looks/sounds good. Don't go overboard, but the occasional little white lie will not kill you. Obviously looking for something nice to say is...obvious and doesn't really count.

(I often have to remind myself that it is perfectly fine for friends to not always want completely cold honesty, and that I don't want to be Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.)
posted by anaelith at 7:00 AM on June 9, 2010

OK, speaking as a musician and a performer, I can understand why your boyfriend is asking for feedback. While storytelling is probably his hobby, he does want to know if there were aspects of his delivery/performance/whatever that need improvement. I know I'm always interested in hearing suggestions for improvement when I perform. (I often have my own opinions of what needs improvement, but it's always important to hear from an audience member).

The issue sounds to me like a) you're letting your distaste of the entire endeavour colour your perceptions of it, and b) you're not giving him criticism in a way that he can use. Being non-committal or only saying positive things sends him the message that you weren't really listening during the performance. And I'm sure you don't want him to come away with that idea!

So, can I suggest the following:
1) Attend his next event, even if it isn't to your tastes. Try to figure out in concrete terms why it isn't to your tastes, if you haven't already, and parse those out of your evaluation of his performance.

2) If (more like when) he asks you for criticism, start by telling him what you liked but then go on to tell him what you feel would improve his performance, not what you didn't like. Make concrete suggestions. If flowy, hippy-drippy isn't doing for you, say so, and suggest an alternative. If his subject matter leaves something to be desired, suggest another subject. Be prepared to say why you think these alternatives might be better. This tells him that you did him the courtesy of engaging with his performance, evaluated it, and have suggestions on how he can improve.

This is, IMHO, the best way you can support your boyfriend in his creative endeavours.
posted by LN at 7:08 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your problem is not with his particular talent or lack thereof, but that you find the activity and scene to be, well, dorky and uncool. And that maybe you're a little embarrassed to be indirectly connected with it. Is that the case?

If so, you may have to decide whether your guy's awesome qualities outweigh his perceived dorkitude. A relationship where one partner's embarrassed about the other is not going to last. And, if the embarrassing trait/activity is harmless and not a breach of etiquette, the way to get through this is for the embarrassed partner to learn to get over his embarrassment, rather than the embarrassing partner to quit doing the embarrassing thing. You don't have to make an effort to like it, just to be ok with it and keep in mind that no one else is judging you or him for it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:27 AM on June 9, 2010

You are either feeling a little bit better than him, or you're jealous that he kinda doesn't give a fuck and has fun sharing less-than-perfect stuff.

Solution: share more of your mediocre work. Share it with gusto. Invite friends. Serve lots of wine. Try to see what he sees in it,
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:30 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you and he are able to have a conversation about this, you might say something like (and this is true IME--I have also been a storyteller in the past) it seems like a bad idea to you for creative artists to look to close friends and family for feedback. There's too much risk of hurt feelings, or on the other hand, inflated positive responses. "I love to come to your performances, and always enjoy myself" (if true) "but I just don't think I'm the right person to give you feedback on your work."
posted by not that girl at 7:40 AM on June 9, 2010

My wife had an interesting issue once, when I started doing music on a regular basis. She had encouraged me to do it, but once I started doing it, she started getting annoyed, and criticizing it, and telling me that she didn't like it.

Needless to say, it was discouraging. It wasn't that I needed her to like what I was doing -- I had no formal training and little experience, and I was just doing it to satisfy my own itch -- but if she didn't like it, I thought she should at least be supportive of the fact I was enjoying it, or if not that, then stay out of my way. After all, hadn't she encouraged me to do it in the first place?

It took a couple of years to shake out, but what she finally realized and admitted was this: as a formally trained and professionally experienced musician who was no longer doing musical things, she was very jealous that I was doing it at all, and that I was doing it surprisingly well for someone with no musical training. She felt like it invalidated her training and experience somehow.

Nowadays, she sometimes likes my stuff and sometimes doesn't, and she only gives me feedback when I ask, although then she gives it bluntly. She doesn't come to my shows because I want to be able to work on performance in front of strangers without worrying about her judgement, and sometimes I ask her to contribute when I know she can make something I'm working on better. We negotiate this all as needed, and she works hard to accept that if I'm doing something I love, that doesn't involve her directly, she should just be happy for me and move on.

So: stop paying attention to his work, except to tell him once in a while that you're glad he's enjoying it, and (when true) praise the things you hear him do and like. Don't get hung up on the idea that somehow his performances cast any shadows on you or your reputation -- he's his own person, and you are your own. If he asks for feedback, either give it, or tell him you're not comfortable giving it because his work doesn't appeal to your taste, as you see fit.

Besides, art is polarizing. He may well truly be the worst performer in the world, but he's got to start somewhere, and over time he'll improve if you don't stand in his way (and if he doesn't, well, that's his cross to bear -- and who cares, if it's making him happy?)
posted by davejay at 10:31 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and: you're allowed to say, bluntly: "I don't want to give you feedback, because I love you and want you to keep doing what you're doing, but I also don't want to lie to you and your work doesn't suit my tastes. You're going to have to go elsewhere for feedback, although I will continue to support you by making sure you have time and space to do your work, and being proud of you for working so hard on it."
posted by davejay at 10:33 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, some people are making this a waaaayyyy bigger deal than it is. Suggesting that your relationship is "not going to work out" over this seems to me kind of nuts!

I'm probably overly assertive about this kind of thing in relationships, but I don't have a huge problem saying "Ugh, I totally hate this kind of thing as much as you love it! It's not a thing for us to share! Here's how much I love you: SO MUCH. Let's do one of the other 150 activities we like to share! Or let's take time to do our own favorite things that each other hates!" And why not? My partner is welcome to not at ALL take part in the things I enjoy. (He would no sooner play Super Mario Brothers than he would hammer his toe repeatedly.)

And I don't think, just because yours is a question of artistic making-of-things, which can be so loaded, that it needs to be so very personal. If he was a bronze craftsman and you hated metal, it would seem less personally loaded. And it should be less loaded!

(And, yes, this goes for little things as well as the big things like artistic production. As an small-thing example, he wants to watch a certain TV show every night; I leave the room to read. "Where are you going???" he always asks. The honest answer that I give is: "The same place I go every night at this hour: out of the room, because I hate hearing this annoying TV show!" Why not? He loves it! I want him to enjoy the things he loves. It makes me happy that he's happy! And I can do other things for an hour.)

One's partner is, however, less welcome to be a pouty little thing about it. "Fine, then I just won't invite you," as yours put it, is like, a little too... rankled for my tastes, but overlookable. And also it is possibly what you were asking for, by saying it's not your cup of tea, maybe?

So in answer to your actual question, I give it a huge, resounding "NO." You should be as snobby as you feel! We like what we like! Like you, I would no sooner sit in a room with a bunch of people telling stories in poetry voice, even if that was the one sort of event that delighted the love of my life above all other things, than I would stab myself in the eyes. If you feel the same way, and it sounds like you do, I am confident you can find a way to have this happily be one of your couple's one-partner-only activity.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:37 AM on June 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone who's put their two cents in. I think it is really probably a little bit of each different thing.

I do think I was much too blunt, and even snobby, even though he DID push for my opinions--thanks for noting the difference, Eyebrows Mcgee.

Just to round out some of the questions others have had, there are plenty of examples of storytelling that I love; i think that's why this feels a little trickier than just being fine with him going to do his own thing. (I love "The Moth" and TAL in general, as well as David Sedaris--I think these are good examples of storytelling that don't have the specific kind of stylistic delivery that annoys me)

At any rate, I was also upset when writing the question, and really apologize for how unorganized my thoughts are on all of this. Thanks for your patience, all.

Also, I started off being vague about the specifics because I almost posted this under anon, and he sometimes pokes around on MeFi.

Just seeing that there are so many different reactions and suggestions makes me feel better about getting confused in the first place.

I will definitely apologize again; i mentioned my background only because i was in the habit of trading critique in school (even with my friends) and think i probably jumped back into that role without thinking about it. Definitely not trying to imply that my opinion was more or less valid because of my education/critical theory/ANYTHING.
posted by leemleem at 1:11 PM on June 9, 2010

Do you want to become a collaborator in his art? If no, then just say to him: "I like mangos. You like watermelon. There is no right or wrong in this. I just don't like watermelon. Let it be."

Now, if you are going to offer criticism, prepare to in effect become his collaborator, because that's what it will devolve into. Why? Because you must take the ego out of this mix - both yours and his.

The best way to do that, is to propose an alternative, as an experiment. When a director doesn't like the interpretation an actor gives (and big actors egos can be a very tricky and dangerous thing to handle), he doesn't just come out and say "I didn't like it, and here are the reasons: x, y, z" - instead, he says: "OK, that's one interpretation, and we got it in the can; now, I'd like a different take - instead of this, do this, and this, and this and this".

The exact same thing can be done with music or storytelling or whatever: "OK, that's one way to tell this story, you've done it, it's there; now, how about trying a different approach: how about if you adopt a different tone for the reading and see how that influences the feel of the story for the audience". This skips the whole defensiveness of the ego and allows the other person to open up their creative process.

The other huge advantage to this, is that sometimes artists fear subconsciously that they'll lose the "best way" or "best performance", in the pursuit of some experiment that may or may not pay off. By telling the actor/musician/writer/artist that "OK, you did it this way, AND WE HAVE IT NOW, IT'S SAFE", you allow him/her to let go of the old way of thinking about their art instead of their constant clinging to the old route hoping you'll see it their way - you explicitly acknowledged their way and now are asking for them to go play. It can be remarkably freeing. I've seen this repeatedly. Now an artist doesn't have to keep thinking about doing it "the right way", but rather, "hey, let's throw caution to the wind, and let's see what else we can come up with" - it's akin to saying "we got some recording time left, just go wild here, try this and now that crazy thing", "we still got some tape left, how about you play it like you're 90 years old!" etc.

What you want to do is to allow the artist to become free to explore other ways. If you merely critique, they are liable to become defensive, or entrenched in their ways, or confused, or hurt or any number of unproductive things. The approach I suggested allows the artist to become free of his ego, of his emotional/time investment in the old product, and opens him up to try something new (and you secretly hope: better).

But, as you can see, it can be quite a bit of work: you must have a clear idea of what it is that makes the piece work/not work. And that is hard and demands time and commitment. It's not just coming up with "stuff I don't like" and leaving it at that. Congratulations, you've just become a collaborator. But... do you want that level of commitment?
posted by VikingSword at 1:36 PM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

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